A Catholic Family’s Guide to Celebrating Holy Week
Since converting to Catholicism in 2014, I’ve been drawn to the rites and rituals of Holy Week. Perhaps it’s because I have such intense memories of my reception into the faith on Holy Saturday and the week leading up to that life-changing day. Or maybe it’s because Holy Week always feels particularly welcomed after the 40 days of Lent.
Or it could be because I’m a person who is drawn to design, to the physical signs and symbols of anything, and especially those of my religion, and Holy Week is full of tangible elements. Whatever the reason, I am here for Holy Week!
Because Holy Week is, well, a week, we try to keep our family celebrations of the seven days fairly simple. I don’t want to burn out on Palm Sunday! Last year was the first year since becoming Catholic that we couldn’t participate in our parish’s Holy Week liturgies, and while we missed them, I was grateful that we had a few at-home traditions to turn to, so that we could do something with our kids and not just watch something happening (though don’t get me wrong: I’ve never been as grateful for live streaming and the ability to connect remotely as I was around this time last year!).
Here are our family’s Holy Week traditions:
When my kids think of Palm Sunday, two things stand out to them: the palms, of course, and the fact that the Gospel for the day is really long. Their minds as well as their legs get tired during the long reading, and I know it is hard for them to focus, so we try to revisit the Gospel as a family sometime later in the day, in a kid-friendly way. I want to make sure they get the message! For us, kid-friendly includes main components: we read a child’s version of the Gospel, and we make it interactive.
We’ve used various children’s Bibles over the years, and either Matthew or I will read the Gospel while the other helps facilitate the interactive components, which I’ve collected in a big basket ahead of time.
Our props include little bottles of essential oils (to represent the perfumed oil poured on Jesus’ head), donkey finger puppets, the kids’ coats (aka “cloaks” to lie on the ground), palms to wave, saltine crackers and grape juice boxes, a stuffed rooster, pieces of purple cloth, and a crown of thorns that I made years ago.
We read the Gospel in front of one of our family's crucifixes, and while the kids are always excited and a bit giddy at the start of the reading, they are typically quieted and sobered by the end of it… which is the exact progression that the Gospel walks us through, and perfectly sets the mood for Holy Week ahead.
On Holy Thursday, we bake bread. We’ve experimented with various unleavened options over the years, including this recipe and this one, and everything we’ve tried has been yummy and fun (that’s not the point, but it’s a perk for the kids). As the bread bakes, we talk about (or have someone read aloud) Exodus 12 — the first passover meal — and then as we break the bread and eat it together, we talk about Jesus’s last supper: the first Eucharist.
Good Friday is a screen-free and quiet (as much as quiet is possible with five small children) day in our home. Matthew and I put away our work so that we can be entirely present with each other, our family, and God. We try to give each other an hour or so uninterrupted child-free time for prayer in the morning, and then we do a few things together as a family in the afternoon.
Sometime between noon and 3 p.m. — when Jesus suffered on the cross — we pray the Way of the Cross (there are lots of free and printable versions online, and, pro-tip: coloring the pages is a great morning activity for the kids). In different years, we’ll spend a few extra moments focusing on various aspects of the Way (for instance, one year we’ll talk about what it might have felt like to be Veronica, wiping the face of Jesus; a different year we’ll discuss Simon the Cyrene).
We always try to spend a few extra minutes contemplating the suffering of Mary alongside her son, because I think this is a valuable lesson for the children to take in: that watching the pain of others is sometimes harder than bearing our own pain.
It can be hard for kids to sit in quiet stillness for any prolonged period of time, but the older kids (and us adults) spend at least five minutes in silence, contemplating the face of Mother Mary and her Son, reflecting on the sacrifices that they made so that we might live fully.
Although Holy Saturday isn’t, yet, Easter Sunday, I always wake up with such a feeling of hopeful jubilance. It’s on Holy Saturday — in the evening — that we welcome the light, and once again sing “Alleluia!”
Though our children are still a bit too young to attend the (sometimes hours-long and very late) Easter Vigil Mass, we bring some of the light into our home — or rather, our back yard — by lighting a bonfire in the late afternoon. Like we would if we were at the vigil Mass, we reaffirm our baptismal promises… and then we make s’mores with peeps! It’s a festive beginning to the Easter celebration.
A word from the wise, if you choose to recreate this version of fun in your home, do it early enough that your children will be off their sugar high by bedtime.Holy Week is a treasured week in our home, for the obvious reason of remembering the life and death of Jesus, but also because it is a concentrated seven days of family traditions. By doing just one or two special things each day, we are cultivating memories and fostering faith in our children, I hope for years to come.